The Lessons of Pineapplegate

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Little did I know when I posted a piece on the NYC Public School Parents blog on April 19 revealing that there was a passage on the eighth-grade New York state exam about a race between a talking pineapple and a hare that a month later, people would still be talking about it. I’ve broken quite a few stories in my time, but none has had the viral velocity of this scandal.

Within 36 hours, John King, the state education commissioner, had released the full text of the passage and questions, and announced he would not count them in scoring the results. Since then, the story has made headlines in news outlets around the world, led to the publication of not one but two leaked memos from Pearson, the company that created the test, and intensified the debate about the role of standardized testing in our schools today.

Why did this story attract such a wide audience? In my view, for two reasons: Much of what is argued about our public schools seems complex and opaque to most outsiders, especially those not immersed in the debate. From the role of the Common Core standards to the impact of charter schools, unless you have children or work in the system, it is not obvious what to think about these matters. But few people who heard about a test question involving a talking pineapple could help but question the judgment of those who would include this material on a standardized test used to determine the future of children and schools.

Also, as students, teachers and parents throughout the nation experience the same shock of having their schools rearranged and disrupted for weeks and sometimes months on end, to prepare, administer and score these high-stakes exams, they are predisposed to question the point of it all. All this testing, with its tremendous cost in terms of the dollars and stress it puts on children, and for what? A talking pineapple?

Here in New York, the State Education Department enthusiastically signed on to “Race to the Top” and agreed to evaluate teachers by means of test scores that had been revealed to be unreliable in the past. State officials also decided to deny the public the right to see these exams after they had been given, reversing a policy of disclosure that had been in place for many years, and switched test vendors to Pearson, now getting paid $32 million to devise our third- to eighth-grade exams. This year was the first one in this new contract, and Pineapplegate was the result.

What other lessons does Pineapplegate offer? According to the Pearson leaked memo, including the pineapple reading passage and questions was “a sound decision” as it “had been field tested in New York State, yielded appropriate statistics for inclusion, and it was aligned to the appropriate NYS Standard.”

As Pearson’s “chief measurement officer” explained, this same passage had been part of the standardized exams in six other states and three large districts since 2004; indeed it had been given 27 different times and yet “we did not have any prior knowledge that the passage entitled “The Hare and the Pineapple” had any controversy associated with it from any prior use.”

But students, parents and teachers from numerous states had complained loudly about the very same passage and questions, for years, on Facebook and on blogs, repeatedly, which is how I found out about it in the first place.

What does this show? It shows that the testing companies and state education bureaucracies have been unaccountable to the public, and have failed to provide the necessary oversight to ensure that these tests, which are supposed to measure the progress of our children and the competence of our teachers, are adequate.

Indeed, we seem to be on a collision course between parents, increasingly fed up with the pointless testing regime and the stress and time taken away from real education, and the decisions of policy makers, who have decided that all that is needed is more and better tests. Here in New York City, we will have new standardized assessments starting in prekindergarten, to be given in up to four subjects, and as many as three times a year, as well as new multistate exams aligned with the new Common Core standards, that will supposedly test higher-order critical thinking, despite the fact that they will be given and scored by computer.

And yet there is no evidence to support that high-stakes testing has any positive impact. The National Academy of Sciences has issued two documents, one a letter in 2009 from experts opposing the education secretary Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” mandate to evaluate teachers by means of test scores, saying these methods are not ready for prime time, and last year, an authoritative report, warning that linking sanctions or rewards to test scores has little research backing and in fact may have harmful effects.

New York City parents are now taking matters into their own hands; many are planning to boycott the Pearson field tests, starting this week at every public elementary and middle school in the city. And on Thursday there is a protest rally planned outside Pearson headquarters, in what is being called a “field trip against field tests.”

A national resolution against high-stakes testing has now been approved by more than 500 school boards in Texas, the state where test-based accountability began; it has also been adopted by school boards in Florida, Ohio, and at least four Community Education Councils here in the city.

Many of us fear that our state and federal education bureaucracy is becoming inextricably tangled with for-profit testing companies and thus deeply compromised, like the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of just before he retired. Their testing obsession is undermining our schools, not only in this city, but nationally, and it has got to stop. This is the ultimate lesson of Pineapplegate, and one that our political leaders should pay attention to, before it is too late.